A problem with a next-generation air traffic control system resulted in hours-long flight delays and cancellations Saturday at airports in Washington and New York, leaving travelers stuck in planes on taxiways or jammed into crowded terminals as they scrambled to make alternate plans.
The Federal Aviation Administration said it was “diagnosing an automation problem at an air traffic center in Leesburg, Va.” The delays at D.C.’s Reagan National Airport were due to an “automation issue” with the new ERAM control system, which is being rolled out nationwide.
In addition to the delays on the ground, officials said they are routing traffic around the affected airspace. A flight-mapping site shows the airspace surrounding the D.C. area as empty due to the delays.
The FAA did not say how many flights have been impacted by the issue, but FlightAware’s “Misery Map” shows the most delays in the U.S. coming out of the D.C. area, with 30 percent of the flights out of Reagan National Airport canceled and 18 percent of flights canceled out of Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport as of about 2:15 p.m. Saturday.
ERAM stands for En Route Automation Modernization and is the computer “system that processes flight and surveillance data, provides communications and generates display data to air traffic controllers.”
ERAM is part of a larger infrastructure update called NextGen, with the rollout beginning about 18 months ago. It was designed to allow air-traffic controllers the ability to handle many more flights and to improve guidance of flights throughout the country.
In addition to National and BWI, flight delays were being reported at Dulles International Airport and New York’s La Guardia and John F. Kennedy International airports.
The tie-ups at the major East Coast hubs could trigger further delays across the country.
Kimberly Gibbs, a spokeswoman for Reagan National and Dulles International, said issues with the outage began Saturday morning causing significant delays. She said and it is unclear when flights will return to normal.
“There have been some flights that have been diverted,” Gibbs said. “We have limited arrivals and departures.”
A spokesman for BWI said a vast majority of the flights were not operating due to the technical issue.
Some report that the scene at BWI has been chaotic, with updates coming about every 30 minutes, but no hint of when flights will be up and running again. Passengers at Southwest concourses of BWI stood in long lines as they tried to adjust their flight plans.
Photos from frustrated passengers posted on social media show crowded terminals as people wait out the delays, with some assigning it a hashtag “flypocalypse.”
Brian Normant reported he had to sit on the runway in Fort Walton, Florida for two hours before he was told the earliest flight he could take back to National Airport wouldn’t be until Monday morning. He said he planned to make the 14-hour drive back to the D.C. area instead.
Anya Shah grilled a Southwest Airlines representative at National on Saturday afternoon, as she waited in line to re-book her cancelled flight to Nashville.
“I’m fired if I don’t get there by 10 o’clock tomorrow,” she told the agent. She received sympathy but no guarantees. Flights had already been almost fully booked before the delays Saturday, and with so many flights canceled, it wasn’t a sure thing that she could get on a later flight today.
Shah stayed in a re-booking line and kept trying to call reservation phone lines but a recording told her there was a 60 minute wait for a callback.
The atmosphere in National’s terminal A was frustrated but calm. Vontra Giles of Birmingham Alabama said the first public address announcement was unnecessarily “frantic.
“You could just sit here and see her nervousness getting transferred to hundreds of people,” Giles said. “We understand it’s an emergency, but you have to remain calm.”
Mike Cashwell, a passenger on a United flight to Michigan, said he and his spouse have been sitting on a plane at Reagan National for two hours, with the pilot announcing there was an issue with air traffic radar.
So far, the plane has been hot, but passengers have been peaceful, Cashwell said, with flight attendants coming by with snacks.
But “cookies and orange juice, that’s going to go so far,” Cashwell said. “If they don’t bring a keg down the aisle soon that might be a problem.”
Amy Ellis Nutt, Dan Balz and Ashley Halsey III contributed to this report.